What sets a great writer apart from a good one? It comes down to how well they can tell a story. And that story, whether it’s a real-life account or a tale of a far-off fantasy world, is why people read.
Stories at part magic, but also part technique. Storytelling tools include point of view, alternating time lines, multiple recounts of the same situation, completely endearing and sympathetic characters (or on the flip side, characters so unlikeable you can’t turn away), a unique spin on a well-known tale, you name it. Mastering a story’s delivery is a huge part of a writer’s job.
Here are 13 novels that will make you a better writer because of the unique and captivating ways their stories are told.
Just a heads up, this post contains affiliate links—that means I get a small commission of any sales made from the links below, but the price is the same for you whether you purchase via my link or directly from Amazon 🙂
1. The Virgin Suicides
AUTHOR: Jeffrey Eugenides
GENRE: Literary Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: The Virgin Suicides is a must-read for several reasons. First, it’s told from the first person plural. It’s a story of five sisters, told from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys. They refer to themselves as “we” and “us” throughout the book. This delivery is perfect for the haunting story they’re telling because it gives the reader a glimpse into the mysterious lives of the girls, but keeps just the right amount of distance.
Second, this book does an amazing job of turning the mundane into a compelling story. Granted, suicide is not mundane, but everything leading up to that part of the story is. If you ever think you don’t have an exciting enough plot, read the first 75% of this book to see you don’t need an adventurous plot to tell an exciting story.
SUMMARY: In The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon girls are the obsession of their suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan neighborhood. They’re beautiful, intriguing, and most of all, mysterious.
Raised in a house with rigid rules, the five Lisbon girls are growing too antsy to be kept confined to the inside of their house. After a devastating suicide attempt from the youngest Lisbon sister, the parents agree to give the girls some freedom.
But after their small taste of independence, their reins are pulled even tighter. However, this time they’re no longer willing to succumb to the repression, deciding to take control of their own fates by a shocking—yet expected—group suicide.
2. A Woman is No Man
AUTHOR: Etaf Rum
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: A Woman is No Man is an ideal case study for the perfect ending. This book is amazing from page one, but the story really earns its glory with its ending. It’s a tidy ending in that every thread is tied and every question is answered, yet it’s also shocking, completely knocking the breath out of the reader.
SUMMARY: In A Woman Is No Man, three generations of Arab-American women tell their story, something that’s never been done in their culture before.
Fareeda is the family matriarch, running the household in Brookyln, New York after she and her husband escape from their horrendous homeland. Fareeda is a stickler for tradition and reputation, letting her new daughter-in-law Isra know (often and loudly) how much she’s letting the family down by only bringing baby girls into the world and no boys.
Isra moves to Brooklyn from Palestine when she marries Fareeda’s son Adam in an arranged marriage. Eager at the idea of a new start in America and freedom to be her own person, Isra’s hopes are extinguished when she quickly discovers that America is not only just as suffocating as Palestine, but now she’s surrounded by strangers posing as family.
Deya, Isra’s daughter, has approached the age where she’s meeting with suitors, but despite her grandmother Fareeda’s urging, she objects to marriage and only wants to set her focus on college. When a mysterious stranger shows up looking for her, Deya begins to understand why she feels so rebellious and what her past memories really mean.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing
AUTHOR: Delia Owens
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: If you want to learn how to create a sympathetic character, read Where the Crawdads Sing. A vital part of telling a good story is a strong, endearing character that the reader can’t help but root for. This book nails that.
SUMMARY: Where the Crawdads Sing is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Kya Clark who grows up in the marsh of North Carolina.
Left by her mother when she was only six, her brothers and sisters the years following, and then eventually her father, she has no choice but to figure out how to do life completely secluded and on her own.
Despite only going to school one day in her entire life, Kya is smart and sensitive. She has sharp insights about the world and people. She’s been abandoned, ridiculed, and on the receiving end of prejudices no one—especially a child—should have to endure, yet she’s still fascinated by life.
Kya is a brilliant character who will melt your heart. And just when you think you’re starting to understand her, she throws you for loop after loop.
4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
AUTHOR: Stephen Chbosky
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: The Perks of Being a Wallflower rolls a lot of literary devices into one—a majorly endearing character, a heartbreaking plot, and a uniquely delivered telling of the story.
SUMMARY: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told through letters Charlie writes to an anonymous receiver. In the letters, he is raw and honest about the trials and joys of high school and the confusion of growing up.
Used to always hiding away, he’s made some new friends that are challenging him to experience life from the center, rather than from the fringes.
Although Charlie wants nothing more than to be normal, he’s not. And trying to keep up with his friends leads to opening that gap more than he’d been prepared for.
Charlie is shy and caring, but he’s also holding on to a lot of guilt. Charlie’s personal story is heartbreaking, but getting to know him is something every reader should experience.
5. White is for Witching
AUTHOR: Helen Oyeyemi
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction | Magical Realism
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: If you are looking for a completely unique (and bizarre) way to get your story on the page, this is a great book to study. White is for Witching blurs genres, creating a haunting and strange read that will sit with the reader for a very long time.
SUMMARY: White is for Witching is the story of Miranda and Eliot, twins whose mother has passed away, leaving them and their father Luc overtaken by grief.
Miranda begins to pull away from her brother and father as her pica—an eating disorder that causes her to crave non-food items like chalk and plastic—begins to rule her.
On top of the mental issues she’s battling, she starts to see and interact with the spirits living in the walls of her family’s chilling house. And these spirits are not just random wayward souls, they’re the late women of her family tree, including her mother. Now they’re trying to pull Miranda deep into the walls with them, to reside forever.
6. Normal People
AUTHOR: Sally Rooney
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: A perfect example of a story where not much happens, yet you can’t put it down. If you want to see how a character-driven story should be done, start with Normal People.
SUMMARY: In Normal People, Marianne and Connell are in different circles—Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is ridiculed and ignored.
But despite their differences, a friendship blossoms between them, quickly growing into something more.
However, Connell is embarrassed to admit his association with her, and Marianne lacks the self-confidence to make him acknowledge her publicly.
As the two graduate and move on to college, their paths seem to separate, until they’re suddenly entwined again. But now, the tables have turned—Marianne is the one who’s well-liked and flourishing while Connell is the one who is lost and floundering.
Their story continues like this for years, growing apart and then suddenly finding themselves tangled together again. As they go through the normal rights of passage as well as things far outside the range of normal, they find themselves always back in front of one another, even when they thought their connection had been severed for good.
7. My Year of Rest and Relaxation
AUTHOR: Ottessa Moshfegh
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: An unlikeable character done right! Most of the time, unlikeable characters are so awful, they’re hard to spend 200+ pages with. But when you stumble across that rare occurrence of a character so unlikeable you can’t help but root for them, you know you’ve found something special. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the epitome of an unlikeable character done right.
SUMMARY: In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the main character—never named—decides to spend a year asleep as much as possible.
Even though she has everything anyone could ever want—looks, money, an Ivy League education, and people falling all over her—she’s miserable. She decides the only way to save her mind from complete destruction is to medicate herself to the point of literal hibernation.
Abetted by an extremely unethical and possibly demented psychiatrist, our heroine gets her wish—to escape from the world through manufactured sleep while she figures out if eternal sleep is her end goal or if her year of rest and relaxation will be enough to renew her strength to return to the world.
AUTHOR: Caroline Kepnes
GENRE: Psychological Thriller
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: You is another book that’s nailed a couple of different literary devices, mainly a unique point of view and a completely unlikeable character.
The title of the book, You, tells you right away this story is told from the second person, an act that’s hard to do, especially in a full-length novel. It’s also told from the perspective of a literal psychopath, but he’s so funny and endearing you can’t help but love him.
SUMMARY: You is the story of Joe and his (extremely) unhealthy obsession with a girl he’s only had a short, one-off encounter with.
Joe is a stalker and a certifiable psychopath—complete with standing outside her window at all hours of the day in various costumes so he won’t be recognized—yet, his justification of his illegal and insane actions are told in a way that almost makes sense. While he is clearly dangerous and creepy, he is also an extremely endearing character.
9. We Were Liars
AUTHOR: E. Lockhart
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction | Psychological Thriller
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: We Were Liars has mastered the plot twist. The story itself is amazing (and heartbreaking) and the delivery of it is pure perfection.
SUMMARY: We Were Liars is the story of Cady, a very sad and damaged girl. She’s also very sick, forced to stay home, bedridden and in the dark, in order to deal with the debilitating headaches she’s been getting since that summer.
The story shuffles back and forth between Cady’s present day and a past summer spent in the Northeast with her family a few years before. Cady no longer partakes in her family’s decadent summers spent on their private island, her grandfather, her mother, and both of her aunts each with their own mansions.
As Cady’s story of that summer is told, we learn of her love for her cousins and a close family friend, the group deemed the “The Liars”.
During that summer, the Liars devise a plan to break down the grand rule of Cady’s grandfather. Except, the plan doesn’t go anything like they hoped. And worst of all—Cady can’t remember any of it.
10. Redeeming Love
AUTHOR: Francine Rivers
GENRE: Romance | Christian Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: Redeeming Love seems to be an anomaly of literature—it uses every cliche you can think of, yet it’s so good. Cheesy, predictable, somewhat flat characters, and a retelling of a well-known tale, it’s still worth the read. This book proves you don’t have to be a literary scholar to write a compelling book.
SUMMARY: Redeeming Love is a retelling of the Old Testament book Hosea. In it, Angel, a woman who has been abused and mistreated her entire life, is relentlessly pursued by a man named Michael.
But Angel wants nothing to do with him, despite his persistence, good heart, and strong work ethic. Since she was sold into prostitution as a child, all she knows is hate and betrayal. Even though he professes his love to her over and over, she remains rooted in her belief that love is just a fallacy.
But Michael sticks around, continuing to love Angel and show her that he truly cares for her because he believes God is calling him to do so. She runs, she fights, and she even spits at him, but he continues to love her with the force of a man who is truly devoted.
11. The Yellow Wallpaper
AUTHOR: Charlotte Gilman
GENRE: Classics | Short Story
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story that takes you deep, deep into the main character’s mind in just a few pages. This is a great example of using a metaphor to unravel an entire universe.
SUMMARY: The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story in which its narrator descends into madness. In the bouts of postpartum depression, the main character is sentenced to spend her days in bed at a summer house her husband has rented specifically for her recovery.
The main character’s husband is a doctor, so she initially heeds his advice—to get a lot of rest and to stop writing. But without her only creative outlet, her imagination begins to wander into sinister places, causing her to believe a woman is trapped in the intricate design of the yellow wallpaper she spends all day staring at. Troubled by the trapped woman, the main character ripped down the wallpaper in an attempt to free her, and in part, to try to free herself.
AUTHOR: Louis Sachar
GENRE: Middle Grade Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: I’ve personally seen Holes referenced over and over for the reason people fell in love with reading, myself included. Holes tells such a good story in such a fun way that it has stolen the heart of millions of readers. If you can learn to tell a story like this, you’ve really done something special.
SUMMARY: In Holes, Stanley Yelnats has never had good luck. In fact, he is so unlucky that he believes he’s cursed thanks to his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great great grandfather.
When a terrible misunderstanding lands him in a boys’ detention center that summer, he can’t stop blaming his great great grandfather. At the detention center, the boys are forced to dig holes, five feet deep by five feet wide, all day every day in an attempt to “build character”. But Stanley and his new friend, Zero, start to suspect that there is a bigger goal driving the excessive hole digging. It turns out they’re right when they unearth a huge scandal. Has Stanley’s luck taken a turn for the better or has it gotten much, much worse?
13. The Luminaries
AUTHOR: Eleanor Catton
GENRE: Historical Fiction
WHY EVERY WRITER SHOULD READ THIS: The Luminaries is an expert example of the winding-story line. This 700+ page book follows the steps of several characters, their personal narratives weaving in and out of each other’s, yet they all come together so perfectly and precisely at the end. If you want an example of a roller-coasted of a storyline, this is it.
SUMMARY: Part ghost story, part historical fiction, The Luminaries is a compelling and tightly woven tale of the New Zealand gold rush and those trying to get their slice of fortune.
When newcomer Walter Moody stumbles upon a tense meeting of twelve locals his first night in town, he can’t help but get pulled into the drama and mystery of their meeting. The men are all trying to figure out what power is behind the strange bout of circumstances that have recently unfolded including a rich man who is now missing, a prostitute who tried—and failed—at ending her life, and a huge fortune that was just discovered in a reclusive drunk’s shack. As they try to work out the connection, the unexplained events become even more intricate and strange.
What books do you think every aspiring writer should read? Share them in the comments below!